I had the pleasure a month ago of playing a platform game I had found on Steam. I think it had been at a reduced price at the time, and as it was rated 95% by Steam users, I thought it must be worth a try. I purchased and downloaded Super Panda Adventures, and found myself wrapped up in the tale of a brave panda named Fu, who just so happened to be a robot ass-kicking ninja with his own sword, shuriken, hammer, and magic powers. In a quest which would involve Fu travelling between worlds to save his own people from an evil race of maniacal robots, I became addicted to this homage to 16-bit classic platformers. I remembered Mick & Mack: Global Gladiators looking like this visually. Plok also came to mind, and the game even has hints of Super Metroid in its gameplay.
I enjoyed the game so much, I felt inclined to hunt down the creator of this wonderful little title, and began my search. I imagined a small studio, maybe US, of 4 or 5 people slaving away at this. Imagine my surprise when I came to find it was the work of one man, a German chap named Paul Schneider who, under his studio name of BlueEagle Productions, developed the whole thing himself, with help from just one other person who handled the audio. Paul was happy to discuss the game with me, as well as other parts of his career. Enjoy!
Funstock: For those who may be unfamiliar with Super Panda Adventures (referred to as SPA through the rest of the article) and yourself, a little bit of background history?
Paul Schneider: I was growing up (and still live in) Hamburg, Germany. It’s a great place to live. My father left us when I was very young, so I only had my mother when growing up. But she has always been, and still is, very supportive of me and never thought of games as a bad thing. In fact, one of her favourite games today is Torchlight II!
My first time playing a video game was in a shopping mall when I was like 4 years old or something. They had NES consoles with Super Mario Bros. playing, and a bunch of kids standing around them. Because the older kids didn’t want to give me the controller, my mum had to step in and ask them to let others play as well. From that moment on, I was just blown away. It wasn’t just the fact that games were like nothing I’ve ever seen before and so much fun to play, but also the idea that someone has created a whole new world with its own characters and rules for others to experience.
My very first “game” was made out of paper, where I had drawn a level on a sheet of paper and my friends used cut-out characters they moved around with their fingers to play through the levels. Ha ha, that was really awesome! A lot of time has passed since then and now I’m making video games for a living. I still hold these childhood memories dear to remind me of what video games are all about.
FS: Tell us a little bit about your releases leading up to SPA.
PS: Sure! Before creating real games, I was into modding for all kinds of games. I’ve made a map for WarCraft III, ‘Legend of Magnador’, which totally changes the whole game into a Final Fantasy type of RPG. I got millions of downloads for that and many people emailed me and told me to go work in the games industry and make actual games. Well, here I am!
My very first actual game release was GunDude. It didn’t receive much feedback, but it wasn’t terrible. For me, it was just my first project that was an actual game without the need for any other game to be playable. It was purely amazing for me. I was starting to learn more and more about how games truly operate under the hood, which is a totally new playing-field compared to making mods. When making mods, you only have to care about the really interesting things. You don’t have to code main menus, learn how to make save games and sound options or anything like that.
GunGirl followed, and it was just an expansion of GunDude. Then came what I consider my first ‘real’ game, GunGirl 2. I didn’t really know what people would think of it and I was very afraid people wouldn’t like it. It was just another game that I made for myself and I never thought people would actually find out about it and play it. But it was exactly how I wanted my game to be and I am to this day very proud of it. It was downloaded millions of times and I receive emails about it even to this day. Then, I took everything I learned from all the feedback that I got and went on to making SPA, my first game that was actually sold for real money.
FS: Where did the idea for SPA come from, was it always going to be about pandas?
PS: Actually, when I came up with the idea of a panda as a hero in a game, they weren’t exactly making the news! I saw the movie Kung Fu Panda and I know a lot of people think that’s the origin of the panda idea – but I never thought that movie had really resonated with many people. Don’t get me wrong, I love that movie and it brings across a very important lesson about life. But up until very late into development, I didn’t even realise a sequel had been released! Pandas just weren’t a ‘trend’ with the public at the time.
When I was thinking of a hero for my game, I didn’t really think of Kung Fu Panda, but I thought pandas are awesome animals that don’t get a lot of attention. Maybe that was silly, thinking that it’s the face of one of the biggest organisations for saving wild life – but I thought I want to dedicate my game to them, and named my hero Fu. It was then that very late in development, Blizzard announced their World of Warcraft expansion Mists of Pandaria, which made me kinda sad, because I thought now people will think that I’m just trying to get attention because they made something with pandas.
FS: What programs did you utilise in developing SPA?
PS: I was using Multimedia Fusion 2, which is made by Clickteam. It’s a fantastic program for starters, but it was really dated, even when I started making my own games. I didn’t realize that up until very late into development of SPA. Even with GunGirl 2, I hardly struggled for performance or other things. I was able to create whatever I felt like and it was a lot of fun. But with SPA, I had more and more trouble getting features into the game exactly how I wanted them to be.
FS: What was making it so difficult?
PS: It was just a very frustrating part of development, dealing with the issues and performance dips the engine brought up. Some features were just impossible to make and that was the moment where I decided that SPA would be my last game with that engine.
FS: How long did development take from start to finish, and were there any particular stand-out moments from the time you spent making the game?
PS: The overall development time was 3 years, but I took long breaks to stay light hearted and not become frustrated. Without breaks I would say the game took 1 year of regular 8 hour days in total.
It’s quite funny that you ask about special moments – well, you could call the whole year of 2013 my special moment, because I was really falling into a hole of writers-block (if that exists for game devs). And my philosophy for that is “don’t force yourself”. So I basically stopped working on SPA and instead I became very interested in almost every conspiracy theory you could imagine. Not because I wanted them to be real, but because there was so much fantasy and inspiration hidden inside them that many people just ignore because they think it’s crazy. I mean there are reptile humanoids living in pyramids on the dark side of the moon, controlling our minds with satellite technology! Come on, that is just brilliant!
FS: So if I said L is Real 2014, what would be your response?
PS: Ha ha, only Nintendo knows!
FS: Who was the music composed by? Sometimes it sounds like real instruments are being used, especially in the main village area.
PS: The music was composed by James Dean (http://www.whatisvalis.com/). I’m unsure of what actual instruments he was using or if everything was pure digital.
FS: Was there any particular direction you were aiming for with the music choices?
PS: When I was looking for a composer, I was thinking that I didn’t want the typical 16-bit music that many people would expect. I wanted a soundtrack that I can listen to at any time. It should be light-hearted, but also upbeat and give the player the impression that you’re playing a brave panda on a mission, not a silly doofus running around in 16-bit land. There were so many important feelings and aspects of the game that the music should get across besides “I’m a 16-bit looking platformer”, which was much more important to me when choosing a composer. So while James still added a few old school bits into the soundtrack to connect it to the visuals, it has a wide variety of different themes and I enjoy listening to the music very much, even today!
FS: The sounds are very traditional where retro platformers are concerned, however I could have sworn I heard some effects I recognised from other games?
PS: Some sound effects I made myself, but others were taken from sound libraries that other developers or even the movie industry have access to as well. I’ve never considered myself to be an audio guy, I’m more about visuals.
FS: Was there ever any consideration toward using actual voices for the characters?
PS: Not until the game was finished and I watched some YouTubers giving the characters some great voices! Maybe for my next game.
FS: Well, if you ever need a ‘Scouse giraffe who hunts women with no luck whatsoever’ kind of voice, i’m your man!
PS: Ha ha, I’ll keep that in mind! Actually there are some lesser known YouTubers with some great voice acting skills that I might just ask if they’re interested in a project at some point. Sometimes I get random emails from talented people asking if I need some help and one of these mails came from a talented voice actress that I might hire for the UNLOVED female protagonist that is coming.
FS: There’s a great sense of sarcastic humour in-game, which I love. Is this you coming through in the game, or were you influenced by something else?
PS: Yeah, I would say many things that Fu, the panda, says in the game could be exactly my reaction to what’s going on as well. When I made the game, I had so much fun creating the characters and for some reason they all turned out to be quite loony. I think I might be a bit insane myself as well, ha ha!
Speaking of which, I think some NPCs were influenced by the crazy characters of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, the cartoon, one of my all-time favourite movies as a kid. Even today I like watching it and I think it is a very interesting concept. This motif of sane meeting insane may have influenced some of my dialogue as well, where the panda represents the sane point of view from the player (or Alice from the movie) and the other characters are just outright bonkers. I think that’s a great setup for comedy, but also gives some food for thought.
FS: There’s a fair amount of dialogue in the game, did you write the whole script yourself?
PS: The whole script was written by me, yeah.
FS: Were there any challenges in writing such a story all by yourself then?
PS: Not so much the story, but the engine gave me a major headache! I was not clever enough to code a convenient text window for the game, so all of the dialogue had to be fit into it perfectly, to the letter. One letter too many and a word would skip to the next line. Only 5 lines per window. After that, the dialogue jumps right out of it, looking ridiculous. It was a nightmare to format. For almost every dialogue box you see in the game, I was actually going through the text counting every letter of every line to make sure it fits. On top of that, I actually translated the whole game into German as well. Another nightmare, but it was worth it. Besides the technical difficulties, it was a ton of fun writing the dialogue!
FS: Playing through the game, I noticed quite a disparity in difficulty between the in-game enemies and the bosses you fight.
PS: Yeah, I’ve heard quite a few complaints about the difficulty of the bosses. It’s the hardest part to get right, especially when the player can use whatever perks he/she likes. Some might be not as helpful as others when fighting bosses. Some people like their bosses tough, some don’t. I didn’t want players to just breeze through the game, so it needed some tougher moments. Balancing is the hardest part to get right I guess.
One trick that many people miss might help you though: You can combine your shuriken with the Mind Bullet or the Megahammer to turn it into a new attack that could give you the edge.
FS: Graphically, it is pure retro and harkens back to titles of the early 90s. Was this your own design or would you say there was no way to avoid past classics?
PS: SPA is my tribute to my childhood. All the fun elements, the goofy characters, the bright colours and the whole aesthetic represents all of my gaming experiences as a child. It was a natural choice to give it a pixelated 16-bit look as well.
When choosing the colour scheme, at first I was trying to restrict myself to the 256 colours that most 16-bit games were limited to back then. But after drawing more and more characters and the environment, I thought that limiting myself was not beneficial, so I chose a mix of high amounts of different colours with more modern transparency effects, but still an old-school pixel look.
FS: Which platformers do you feel had the biggest influence on SPA overall?
PS: The gameplay was inspired by Zelda II on NES and a little gem called Faxanadu, also for the NES. Zelda had this whole world map thing and items that are used to unlock new areas, and Faxanadu always fascinated me as well. It was the first game I ever played where the hero actually changes his appearance based on what armour and weapons you’re using.
FS: I absolutely love it when your character looks unique to your game experience, take World of Warcraft for example. Hunting the orbs in SPA was a treat for me!
PS: As a kid, I loved seeing my hero changing throughout his adventure. But I was also very disappointed to see that there were not many other games that had this feature, because I really liked it. When developing SPA, I remembered my sadness as a kid about that, so I thought Fu had to graphically wear every armour and sword that you give to him!
FS: Talking of influences, I’m surprised you didn’t mention more traditional platform titles, but instead games which aesthetically are nothing like SPA.
PS: Zelda II and Faxanadu are both platformers with sword-swinging heroes, similar to Fu the panda. There were other inspirations like Super Mario World as well, if you look at the colour schemes or even the cape of the Panda, which was another tribute to myself as a kid, because I always loved Mario with the cape, but sadly it never made an appearance in any other game, at least that I know of. I think when you are creating something new, it is inevitable to draw inspirations from things that you really loved and adored when you experienced it yourself and I’m trying to show that in my work.
FS: There’s no such thing as a perfect game, but a 95% Steam rated score shows you’re not too far off! Looking back at SPA, is there anything in there that you would go back and change?
PS: When developing GunGirl2, I quickly ran into the problem that there were not enough rewards for the player. You could only get so many weapons and that was basically it. But when designing the levels, I had so much room for hidden loot and treasures that I had to come up with new items that these locations can hold. Knowing that, I tried my best to design SPA around getting interesting rewards for exploring locations. Even though I think exploring the world of SPA is a lot of fun and very rewarding anyway, I think it could have been better. There are even more items that I could have created as rewards, maybe some more interesting items that you can buy in the shops as well.
I think I could have done better with the NPC animations. Master Wushu is the only animated NPC in the game. During development, I was always thinking, “This is a low priority issue that I will fix later”, but at some point I just forgot about it. It didn’t really bother many players, at least nobody has ever brought this flaw up to me.
FS: I actually did notice that, but I thought it was intentional because it felt just like a classic platformer again. There’s not many out there that did include animated NPCs so I think you can be forgiven!
PS: Ha ha, thanks, glad to hear that!
FS: Any difficulties with outsiders? Whether it was in getting the game released, or licencing issues you may have been infringing upon?
PS: Getting the game out to the public was a nightmare. In the first month after release, I made a whole whopping 80 bucks from it. The internet just didn’t notice the game. Marketing was never my strong point. I think it was almost the exact time when SPA came out that Steam’s Greenlight had its great opening. I was adding SPA to it, but since the game had such little internet buzz around it, very few people found and voted for it. I even got some e-mails from people saying “I would buy the game once it comes out on Steam”, so that didn’t help. My chances for that to ever happen were slim to say the least.
Then, there came the bundles. Seeing that my game at that point had made next to no income whatsoever, I had no other choice but to put it into as many bundles as I could hope. Every bundle would generate a little bit of attention for the game, but it also meant that I was now obligated to send out almost 30,000 keys to all the bundle buyers when it got released on Steam.
Last but not least there was the contract with a publisher that bought all the rights to sell SPA anywhere outside of Steam. Even they didn’t manage to sell the game that well, but at least they generated enough awareness for the game that it finally got greenlit. And then, the release on Steam changed everything!
FS: How are Steam to work with?
PS: A lot of the “other side of Steam” is confidential for obvious reasons, but what I can say is that Valve are one of the best business partners someone can wish for. They are highly professional, they respond ultra-fast to any concerns that you may have and Steam is very easy to access, set up and use as a dev. At first I was a bit overwhelmed by all the features Steam offers, but after a while you get how it works and it’s just fantastic.
FS: The GunGirl/Dude games and UNLOVED are quite a stark contrast in terms of content and style, one being a 2D side-scrolling cartoony shooter, the other a Silent Hill-like FPS. Why such a big difference in your genre styles?
PS: One of my biggest life-changing moments was the first time I played Doom. I mean, Wolfenstein 3D was good as well and it was my first game I ever made new maps and sprites for, but Doom blew everything out of the water. Until this day I think it is simply a masterpiece and it changed my life forever.
When I am thinking of a new game I want to make, I like to draw inspiration from my childhood, but also recent memories of games I played. GunDude, the very first game I made, was inspired by I Wanna be The Guy, which was the game that helped me understand how to make your own games without having to program code. GunGirl was inspired by Mario games, but also the 2.5D shooter Duke Nukem Manhatten Project, which I really liked. GunGirl 2 had a lot of inspiration from Cave Story, one of the best indie platformers in recent history in my book.
Besides these light hearted games, I’ve always had a deep fascination for horror games like Silent Hill – and of course Doom. Naturally, since Doom had such an impact on my life, I’ve always wanted to make an FPS in that old-school way – and that’s where UNLOVED comes in. I’ve already made a Doom 2 map pack with the same name, but when I realized that I can make my own FPS with a 3D engine, I wanted to bring Unloved to the next level.
FS: Will you alternate genre releases in future?
PS: I can see myself make games of other genres as well in the future. StarCraft had a huge impact on my life, lots of MMOs are fantastic, Skyrim, Diablo, Streetfighter… there are lots of very interesting genres out there, so who knows?
FS: UNLOVED is your latest release. Will we ever see a return to SPA or do you feel you said all that needed to be said in the one game?
PS: I can definitely think of more adventures for Fu the Panda. His whole world and all the characters were so fun to come up with and immerse myself into that I will certainly give this game a sequel in the future.
FS: Would 3D be a consideration for a potential sequel?
PS: I’m very split about this. I think going a 2.5D direction like many other “modernized” platformers do might be a good middle ground. On the other hand, I think the game could also go completely 3D like modern Zelda games. One thing is for sure, no matter what direction the next game will take, I will keep using the Unreal Engine 4 for my future projects. It is just so versatile that I can even make a simple, purely 2D game with it and it is very convenient and easy to use.
FS: You were brought up and still live in Germany. How is it there with the whole censorship issue these days?
PS: It’s a nightmare! I personally am against censorship in any way, especially when it comes to art and I consider video games a form of art. Whenever I want to buy a game on Steam and I see that ugly sticker, “This game has reduced content due to violence blah blah”, I get turned off immediately. There are some blood cheats out there for some games like Left 4 Dead, but I do not try to use these because I don’t know how Steam reacts when you do this type of stuff with your account.
There is also a clear reason why games should not be censored, especially when it comes to violence. There is this morbid satisfaction in the brain when you see a reaction of an enemy when you shoot it. When you hit an enemy and it would just disappear without any kind of visual effect, it takes away this satisfaction and makes the game dull. Even in SPA I made sure that when you destroy an enemy, there is a visual representation that makes it satisfying. I wish these censorship guys would realize that. Isn’t it enough that games have a “mature” sticker on them to keep the kids away? In Germany (and some other countries) apparently not. Very sad.
FS: Your personal top 5 games? Worst game you ever played?
PS: I cannot put them into a real order, but I would say Skyrim, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Binding of Isaac Rebirth (even though I watch it more being played on YouTube than playing it myself), TERA, and for obvious reasons Doom 2.
The worst game I ever played in recent history may have been GTA V on PC. Not because it’s a bad game, but there are stability issues with the game that Rockstar never addressed, which made the game unplayable for me and it was very, very frustrating and sad, because I wanted to love that game so much.
FS: Anything you’d like to say to wrap up?
PS: I would like to thank everybody who loves the Panda just as much as I do and I’m also very thankful for all the positive feedback that I got for the game – reading some of the experiences and reactions players had made me very, very happy! I was going through hell and high water to make this game and get it released and now seeing that players have so much fun with it lets me know it was worth every moment of that.
FS: Thank you very much for your time!
PS: Thank you for interviewing me, it was a pleasure!
*** You can grab Super Panda Adventures on Steam, now with a 50% discount until 14th September ’15: http://store.steampowered.com/app/311190 ***
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